Catherynne M. Valente, author of thought-provoking fantasy for children and adults, takes the authors of classic literature for adults – the Bronte siblings – and turns them into characters in a book for children. Can she pull it off?
The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente. Simon and Schuster, 2017.
The book opens with the four Brontë siblings, Charlotte, Emily, Branwell and Anne, all living at the parsonage at Haworth. They all feel the pain of their lost mother and two older sisters. Charlotte, formerly a middle child and now the eldest, feels her new responsibility keenly. Branwell, though younger, also feels that he is in charge of the siblings because he is the only boy. Despite this, all four children have made a secret world for themselves in rooms the adults don’t enter, where they have fantastical battles with their wooden toy soldiers.
The plot slowly kicks off on “the beastliest day” as Branwell, accompanied by little Anne, is sent to chaperone Charlotte and Emily on their way back to the horrible boarding school where their sisters died. They take a detour in hopes of seeing the new spectacle of a train – and see a man all made of newspapers running away from what seem to be life-sized wooden soldiers.
Soon the children have boarded a clearly magical train to their invented world of Glass Town. They find eternal battles between the Duke of Wellington and Old Boney – literally made of bones, and riding on a rooster of glued together china – even though the Napoleonic Wars ended years ago in their world. At first, they are completely on Wellington’s side, being fought by their own soldiers, and think that they know everything about the world. Soon, though, they discover that there is far more going on, from the way the world takes metaphors literally (French soldiers are literally frogs, for example) to the personalities of their toys-come-to-life. Complicated plottings as well as deep thoughts about the nature of the universe and the power of imagination ensue. Kate Reading does an excellent job as narrator, voicing everyone from the properly raised siblings to working class English and French.
Valente is nothing if not original, even when borrowing the real imaginary world of the Brontës as children. She’s looking at lots of very serious topics, including the costs of misogyny and war, as well as theories of alternate universes and the limits of a creator. With that, we still get to know all four of the children, their frustrations and hopes for the future while following them through battles, chases, near-misses and the hunt for a potion that can raise the dead. The major drawback, of course, is that putting all of this into one book takes a lot of time – it’s 535 pages and stuffed with references to things that aren’t normally taught to the target audience of 10 to 13 year olds, including the siblings themselves and their works, Shakespeare, the Napoleonic Wars.
I’m still asking myself if this all works a month after finishing it. I found it quite absorbing and found myself listening to it for hours at a time. Between the length and the obscure references, though, I’m hard-pressed to come up with the ideal child reader for it – either a very advanced reader, or a parent and child reading together. It’s still a fascinating piece, even if The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making has broader appeal.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.